As Anglicans, we use various forms of ancient worship called “liturgical.” This is the major thing that distinguishes us from “low” churches that do not have a traditional liturgy.
Liturgy: The Work of the People
Liturgy comes from a Greek word which means “the work of the people.” In this ancient custom of worship, we become as a group of Christians what we cannot be as individuals—the people of God.
Unlike many “low” churches today, in liturgical worship the people in the pews participate in worship through song and response and joining with the ministers in confession and prayer and worship. In many low churches, all the action is up front, and the people watching are doing just that—being spectators, not participants.
This is why liturgy is called the “work of the people.”
The liturgy was the ancient prayer of the church.
The early church thought of it as a journey or procession, picking up each Lord’s Day to resume our journey out of the world and into the Kingdom of God—into the fourth dimension, if you will. It is not an escape from the world, but a way to see the reality of the world from a heavenly vantage point.
Liturgy’s Jewish Heritage
The early church did not make up this liturgy from scratch. They derived most of it from the Jewish liturgy, and brought out its messianic meanings.
So, for example, there was an entrance rite in the Temple liturgies, based on Ps 122.1, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’” The Levite singers would go in a procession before the priests, who would bring up the ark of the covenant (before the temple was built), which contained the two tablets of God’s words and the manna that God fed them with in the wilderness.
The two basic parts of the Christian liturgy—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Table—are based ultimately on these two features of Jewish history and worship.
Liturgy & Sacrament
Liturgical churches are sacramental churches.
We celebrate the sacrament of communion every week, not just on certain Sundays of the year. We believe communion is not merely a remembrance of what happened two thousand years ago, but the celebration of and participation in the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.
We consider baptism to be not merely what we do to proclaim our faith but also something that happens to us in a special way by the Holy Spirit, planting a real seed that must then be watered and nourished by learning and fellowship and faith.
Liturgy & Time
We follow the church year, which is a way coming from the ancient church that takes us through the great seasons of Christian life every year—seasons that re-present to us the whole history of Israel and Jesus Christ.
We read and preach from the lectionary, a 3-year cycle of Bible readings that take us through 80% of the Scripture so that we are forced to take up Bible passages we might not otherwise take up.
The result of following the church year is that every Sunday is different, in its readings and prayers, which means not only that our worship is varied each week but also that we are helped to rediscover a new aspect of the Tri-personal God and his history with his people every week and in each new season.
The most important days and seasons of the church year are:
- Christmastide (12 days),
- Transfiguration Sunday,
- Ash Wednesday,
- Passion week,
- Reformation Sunday,
- Christ the King Sunday.
Liturgy & Candles
One of many distinctive aspects of liturgical worship is candles.
Candles are lit on the altar before the service as a symbol of Christ as the light of the world (John 8.12), and a sign that Christ is now present in a special way—speaking through the reading of the Word and preaching, and feeding us through the sacrament.
During the Easter season, and at baptisms and funerals, the tall Paschal Candle is lit, for it is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
Liturgy & Communion
Another distinctive of liturgical and sacramental worship was mentioned above: we have communion at nearly every service.
This is because of Anglican conviction that the purpose of worship, as the early church taught and exemplified, was to hear and receive the Word of God, and also to be fed with the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament—and through both of these essential parts of worship, to give the Tri-personal God the worship and adoration He deserves.
Thus the importance of corporate prayer (when two or more of you are gathered…) and music.
Liturgy & Music
Luther said music was the greatest gift of God after theology. The historic church has always made music central to worship, recognizing that music is used by God to lift prayer and praise to a higher level.
The Psalms, which have always been the prayer book of Israel and the church, were set to music by David and other Israelite worship leaders, and have been used for musical worship throughout the 2000-year history of the church.
The Anglican tradition has always been known for its splendid musical worship, using classic hymns from the early and medieval Church, as well as Reformation and later Anglican hymns.
In sum, the liturgy is a gift from Israel and the historic church that teaches us how to worship the Tri-personal God and leads us to experience Him more deeply and richly as we follow its lead through the lectionary and church year.
Gerald R. McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and associate pastor of Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL. He blogs at The Northampton Seminar, and you can follow him on Twitter at @DrGRMcDermott.